Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Unsafe for who?

Not infrequently, I will hear someone from the UPenn community (undergrad / grad / faculty / staff) complain about how unsafe Philadelphia, or West Philadelphia is. For some reason, I always become defensively offensive in these conversations, and I'm not sure why. It's not just a Philly pride thing. I have a  different emotional response when someone says that New York is better than Philly, or that Philly is dirty, etc. Now, a recent police shootout with a carjacker on the West side of campus, leaving one of the carjackers dead, has brought this issue to the top of my mind. The whole incident began and ended within 10 minutes it appears, and the Department of Public Safety sent out an e-mail with some details of the event an hour later. The fact that many Penn students are angry that they didn't receive a text message sooner than that is raising that same feeling of defensive offence.

This post is about why I think I feel that way. I think it's likely to be unpopular. So, let me say from the outset that as a description of an emotional reaction of mine, it's probably unfair and biased in some ways, and I'm not trying to pass off the contents here as results or facts.

I think I get offensively defensive about the safety of Philadelphia when a Penn person talks about it for two reasons.
  1. I feel that they have rarely stepped back to appreciate their own privileged position in Philadelphia which derives from their Penn affiliation.
  2. I feel that what they call a sense of "unsafety" is actually an uncomfortable class consciousness.

There are a few ways in which Penn students are specially privileged with regards to personal safety. Most strikingly, they have their own private police and security force with omnipresent patrols. They can call for walking escorts anywhere within the UPPD patrol zone. They have a special alert system to send text message warnings about possible and ongoing threats. These are some special services that regular Philadelphia citizens don't have, but there are also many other smaller details where Penn students benefit. For instance, pedestrianized areas on campus are almost universally well lit.

What all this means is that large amounts of time and energy are specially devoted to keeping Penn kids safe, special time and energy that typical Philadelphia citizens don't get.

Also, to say that Philadelphia is unsafe isn't very informative, because the unsafety is not uniformly distributed socially or geographically. Who is Philadelphia unsafe for? I grabbed 2009 homicide data from the Philadelphia Inquirer, and generated this histogram.
When it comes to homicide, it looks like Philadelphia is dangerous for young black men, like the one who was killed in the shoot out.

With Philadelphia population data from the American Community Survey (found on http://factfinder.census.gov/), I came up with an estimated risk of being a murder victim. That is, for every age, race and sex group, I calculated the 1 in X chance of being a murder victim. In the plot below, I've superimposed the estimated risk of a Penn Community member being a murder victim in 2007 and 2008 based on the Penn DPS 2010 Annual Security and Fire Report. There were no murders for 2009 in the report.
According to my rough calculations, a black man in his early 20s had a 1 in 400 risk of being a murder victim in Philadelphia in 2009, while the average Penn community member had a 1 in 25,000 risk of being a murder victim in 2008.

I think it's a fair criticism here to say that data on assault or sexual violence might look different. Certainly young black men wouldn't be at the highest risk for being rape victims. However, I'd be shocked that if for all kinds of violent crime, Penn students weren't many orders of magnitude less likely to be victims than normal Philadelphians.

What grates against my sense of propriety is how the people who objectively appear to be the safest in the city can worry so loudly about their personal safety, and feel entitled to so much, like informational text messages arriving sooner than one hour following an incident. There is a real problem of violence in this city, but Penn students are not its victims, and they already benefit from many special services devoted to their safety.

As for my second reason for getting worked up, everything is much more speculative. I just don't think that when the average Penn student says "Philadelphia isn't safe," they say so because they have been a victim of Philadelphia violence themselves, or know someone who has been, or even know the statistics of the area they're talking about. Instead, I think they're reporting some different kind of emotional reaction to Philadelphia.

There have been a few occasions in my life where I have been in the numerical racial minority, and have, for want of a better expression, felt my whiteness on me. I am fully aware that the fact that this is a rare enough event to be reportable is a function of my straight white cisgendered male privilege. The reason I bring it up at all is because I think I recognize the same kind of feeling in the Penn people who complain about the safety of Philadelphia. Just being in a city, or walking through some if its areas, perhaps they feel their whiteness (approx 55% of the student population) or upper middle classness (approx 70% of the student population from the top 10% income percentile) on them.

Maybe what I just said is true, and maybe it's not. Regardless, my own emotional reaction when a Penn person complains about safety is that their complaint is class based. What bothers me is not their own class consciousness, but rather their conclusion that there is a flaw in the city or their neighborhood that caused them to have this uncomfortable experience. Their presumption that a city and neighborhood most have never lived in ought to be a safe-space for them is offensive to me.

And that is how I feel about that.


  1. Well said, Joe.

    I'd be interested in seeing how the factors interact—what's the risk of violent crime for a young black male Penn affiliat vs. a young while male Penn affiliate, e.g.? Of course, n might be too small in some of these combinations for there to be anything to report.

  2. The Inquirer used to have a feature on its website (maybe they still do) where you could view a map of the murders committed in Philadelphia, and then choose factors like age, race, gender, etc. to filter the results. While I was at Penn, my dad called me to say he'd been a little worried about all the violence he'd been hearing about and had gone on the website and played with the map feature, which was covered in dots for murders. Then he searched just for white women age 18-24 and maybe three dots popped up. Hearing him say, "Yeah, so I realized you probably weren't going to be the one getting killed" drove home for me the first point you made. Nice post, Joe.


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